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The moment Mexican food is mentioned, images of tacos, enchiladas and nachos float in in the mind’s eye. Mexican food now has become popular almost all around the world and its influences in cooking can be found anywhere. The Mexicans pride themselves in using natural, local ingredients that generations before them used. 

Mexico however is a country of avid contrasts and a thorough read through its history will reveal its turbulent antiquity, richness and excitement. It will also reveal how the old world tastes have mingled with the new world to create dishes that are at the same time colourful, delicious with diverse tastes.

What is the most common impression about Mexican food? That it is hot and wholesome and has many similarities with Indian food. And like Indian cuisine Mexican is not one single cuisine but many. There is a feast of flavours for the food lover as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean teem with fish, while the adjoining regions bloom with luscious fruit like pineapple and papayas. The high plateau yields wonderful vegetables and the north is cattle country…..and to bind all these in one single string are chillies…in every shape, colour and size, from the subtle to the strong, producing a signature to Mexican cuisine.

Mexican cuisine is now one of the world’s most popular which is available almost all around the world. It covers three facets of society – peasants, priests and princess – and all of them are responsible for elevating the Mexican kitchen to great heights.

It dates back almost 9000 years ago when the staples for the Mayans included a variety of squash and sweet potatoes, local animals and insects and many types of fruits or vegetables that grew wildly in this part of the world. 

Mexico, wild and barren in the north and sultry and hot in the south, offers a cuisine that reflects the culture of the country – colourful, rich, invigorating and always, always festive! Here is taste of the electric and vibrant cuisine!

Regional cooking in Mexico

North: The Northern area is sparsely populated and the life there is tough. The specialties there include a lot of beef .The favorite dish of the locals is beans cooked with scraps of meat, chillies, herbs and spices over an open fire. The north of Mexico is also the main cheese producing region. Baja California is the oldest wine producing region of Mexico. Monterrey region is the industrial region of the country.

Coastal region: The northern Pacific coast has lot of beaches which includes fishes like bass, tuna and swordfish. Ceviche, a dish made of raw fish which is cooked with lemon juice is very popular in this region. The tomatoes produced in this region are very famous. In this part of Mexico tamales are rolled in banana leaves rather than in corn husks.

Central Mexico: This region is famous for the traditional Mexican foods that include cactus preparations. The Puebla region in the central Mexico is associated with the famous dish mole pablano, a complex dish made with turkey or chicken cooked in a paste made by mixing crushed dried chillies, cinnamon, cloves, sesame seeds and ground nuts. Tlaxcala which means “a place of many tortillas,” is a town renowned for its food. The streets are filled with vendors selling all sorts of snacks.

South: The southern region of the Mexican cuisine is different from the other regions as it is partly isolated due to dense rainforest and swampland. The poor soil in this region does not support agriculture. Although corn is grown in the areas where the vegetation is cut and burned and is ground to make masa harina used for corn tortillas. Epazote is the herb used in cooking in this region. This area is well known for large shrimps along with good fish, squid, and shellfish. The habanero chilly is the hallmark of the Yucatec area. 

Getting to know the Mexican ingredients

Across Mexico, the very different types of terrain and variations in climate provide a remarkable range of ingredients. In those days, agriculture was done using the mixed-crop method. In this method a variety of different crops were planted in one area. And what’s more they were all even harvested at once. This method made the soil remain nutrient rich, because each crop uses a different variety of nutrients. For example crops such as corn, chillies, beans and squash would all be planted together. 

After the conquest of Mexico, their food culture got influenced greatly by trade with India and Spain. Mexico was introduced to rice, olives, wines, spices from India, beef and also different kinds of fruits. Some of the animals that are commonly used today in Mexico, like for example pigs, horses, cows, sheep, goats and chicken were not known in those days. The Spaniards also introduced Mexicans to many condiments including black pepper, olive oil, cinnamon, cilantro and oregano.  

Corn: Corn was the main staple of the pre-Colombian Mexican people. Locally grown and in plentiful, they would make a number of dishes with it, like tortillas or tamales. Tortillas would be filled with ingredients such as meat, rice, beans, or vegetables or a combination of these. Every part of an ear of corn is used in Mexican cuisine: the husks for wrapping tamales, the silk in medicines, the kernels for food and the stalks for animal feed. Sun dried and fire dried white corn kernels are ground and made into flour called masa harina which is the base for tortillas and other corn dishes.

Beans: Beans are staple food in Mexico and there is a pot of dried beans simmering daily on the stove in many homes. The popular varieties of dry beans like pinto beans and black beans are indigenous whereas chickpeas are not native to the country but were brought in from the Middle East. However now they have become popular and feature in several dishes.

Rice: Mexicans have been using rice since it was introduced to the country by the Spanish in the 16th century. The rice grown and used in Mexico is long-grain and is used in a variety of dishes like dry soup to rice pudding. Ground rice is used as flour in cakes and cookies. Horchata is a drink made with rice that has been soaked and then finely ground.

Chocolate: Chocolate along with various nuts and seeds is an important element in sweet and savoury dishes. Main use for chocolate in Mexico is still as a beverage. Bitter chocolate or cocoa finds its way into the rich stews.

Nuts and seeds: Pecan, walnut and almonds are widely used. Pinenuts are used in some desserts and pastries and coconuts are valued both for their flesh and the cooling water they contain. Seeds from pumpkin and squash have been important ingredients in Mexican cooking for centuries. Sesame seeds are also used, both in pastes and as a garnish on dishes.

Piloncillo or Mexican Sugar: Mexico produces an unrefined brown cane sugar called piloncillo. It comes in small cones and adds a distinctive flavour and colour to any dish to which it is added. Unfortunately, piloncillo is still not readily available outside Mexico, but brown sugar can be used in recipes as a substitute.

Fruits: Mexican markets are awash with piles of fresh fruits. You might identify the mangoes, papayas and limes and oranges. Some are region specific like granadillas, guavas, pineapples, prickly pears, pomegranates, sapodillas and sapote.

Vegetable fruits: Vegetable fruits like avocados are the most famously used in Guacamole, the mashed avocado dip. Mexicans use tomatoes in so many of their recipes that it would be impossible to list them all. What is unique to Mexican cooking are the tomatillos used in table salsas and tomato verde salsa the sauce that is poured over enchiladas before they are cooked. Plantains are used in both sweet and savoury dishes…a dessert made by cooking plantains in butter and cinnamon, with a little sugar and a good amount of rum is very popular.

Sweet bell peppers: They come in green, yellow and red varieties and contribute colour and flavour to salsas, stews and meat fillings as well as fish dishes, vegetable medleys and salads.

Chillies: The soul of Mexican food! You find them fresh and dried. The Mexicans are also known for using a variety of chillies in their cooking, jalapenos being one of the more popular ones. They would combine them with other herbs to add more flavour and spice to their dishes, a method that is still popular today.The heat level of the chillies is measured in Scotsville units where 0 is the heat level of a sweet pepper and 300,000 is the hottest chilli, the habanero. The most commonly used fresh chillies include the serrano, jalapeno, poblano and fresno. Dried chillies too are used and have intense flavour. You can choose from ancho, cascabel, chipotle, habanero, pasada, guajillo and pascilla.

Cheese: There are many different types of cheeses available in Mexico, but special are Queso Fresco (fresh cheese), Asadero (roasting cheese, substitute is mozzarella), Queso Anejo (hard cheese, substitute is parmesan cheese), Queso Chihuahua (less salty but like anejo, substitute is medium Cheddar) and Queso De Oaxaca ( stringy cheese, substitute is Monterey Jack).

Others: Mexico has been blessed with a variety of vegetables like corn, green beans, sweet potatoes, squash and chayotes. Nopales are edible leaves of several varieties of prickly pear cactus. Fat and fleshy they are often called cactus paddles. Used in stews and soups, nopales are used in salsas and salad dishes. They are even added to scrambled eggs. Other popularly used ingredients are chorizo, dried meat and salt fish. Mexican cooking makes use of a wide range of flavourings. Chillies are clearly at the top of the list but spices like cinnamon and allspice are popular too. Fresh herbs like epazote are native to the country and has a distinctive sharp pungent flavour. 

Some popular Mexican dishes

Among the more popular Mexican dishes today include Guacamole, which is a dip made with avocado and tomato and is usually served with tortilla chips. Another dish is enchiladas, which are tortillas filled with a variety of different fillings like meats, cheese, vegetables, covered in a sauce (usually tomato-based) and baked. Another common breakfast or dessert food item is empanada, which is a pastry filled with fruits. They are sometimes also filled with meats.

Today a blend of Mexican foods that have been Americanized is very popular. Tex-Mex dishes like refried beans, nachos, chimichangas, fajitas and chilli con carne have gained popularity the world over. 

Then of course there are the tacos, bruschetta and burritos that have won the hearts of food lovers all over the world.


In Mexico corn is not only eaten but also drunk. Corn is the base of the hot drink called atole, which is flavoured with fruit, chocolate, rice and some other ingredients. Fermented corn is the base of a cold drink as well which goes by different names and varieties such as tejuino, pozol and others. Aguas frescas are flavoured drinks usually made of fruit, water and sugar. Beverages also include hibiscus iced tea, one made from tamarind and one from rice called horchata.

One variant of coffee is café de olla, which is coffee brewed with cinnamon and raw sugar. 

Chocolate played an important role in the history of Mexican cuisine. In fact the word "chocolate" originated from Mexico's Aztec cuisine, derived from the word xocolatl. Chocolate was first drunk rather than eaten. It was also used in some religious rituals.

Alcoholic beverages from Mexico include tequila, pulque, aguardiente and mezcal, with brandy, wine, beer and rum also being produced. The most common alcoholic beverage consumed with food in Mexico is beer, followed by tequila.

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MasterChef Sanjeev Kapoor

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. He is Chef extraordinaire, runs a successful TV Channel FoodFood, hosted Khana Khazana cookery show on television for more than 17 years, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurateur and winner of several culinary awards. He is living his dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering women through power of cooking to become self sufficient. His recipe portal is a complete cookery manual with a compendium of more than 10,000 tried & tested recipes, videos, articles, tips & trivia and a wealth of information on the art and craft of cooking in both English and Hindi.